One of the themes that re-occurs in therapy with persons who come from a family of origin where addiction (among other issues) is part of the story, is that of nonexistent or poorly defined boundaries. These porous boundaries affect every relationship that these persons have. They lack the implicit understanding of “where do I end and others begin…” Healthy boundaries mean the ability to recognize what is our responsibility (and what is truly within our power to control) and what isn’t. Boundaries are an essential ingredient to creating a healthy self. They define the relationship between you and everyone, and everything else around you.
It can be most difficult to maintain or define boundaries with our family of origin. Often, we are taught as children, not to make waves or to “just get along;” that is, to not assert or define our own boundaries. This is especially prevalent in families of addicts and alcoholics where the family unit’s primary purpose is to make the family look “normal” to the world.
Children do not have fully developed boundary systems and must rely on parents to provide them. They are extremely vulnerable and need the support and safekeeping of caregivers in the physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual realms. Children learn how to defend themselves and choose safe times to be open and trusting in relationships by experiencing the protection and the vulnerability of functional and healthy caregivers. Protection meaning that caregivers recognize and respect a child’s rights to their own thoughts, feelings, bodies, and behaviors even while they guide them into authentic relationships with self and others. And, when anyone behaves in abusive way to them (family, acquaintance, or stranger) the caregivers step in to safeguard the child’s security. They do not side with the transgressor against the child.
This good modeling of boundaries is never found in the family of an alcoholic or addict. An abusive family system (and the family of an alcoholic or an addict is dysfunctional and therefore abusive) is by its very nature completely un-boundaried and dis-ordered. As children we want to please our disordered parent and get along with a disordered sibling or relative; however, a personality disordered individual lacks appropriate personal boundaries of their own. This can result in inappropriate affectionate gestures and lack of personal privacy for the child.
When our own personal boundaries are routinely broken, the message we learn is that our own needs and feelings don’t count – we are required to accept how others treat us without question. As we grow into adults, these lessons can become our way of life. We often feel taken advantage of, used or that our desires are unimportant. We become frustrated and angry that our boundaries are violated yet we are unable to express what, exactly, our boundaries are. Constant yielding to a parent, sibling or relative becomes second nature. We lose our own sense of self and often find ourselves in unhappy relationships, jobs and life situations. The early lessons that our feelings, views and opinions don’t count continue to dominate our lives, sometimes subconsciously in every new relationship we develop.
This is how working with a therapist can help. Creating healthy boundaries is important in any relationship, and learning how to set healthy boundaries is one of the very best things you can do to ensure that you don’t end up in the same dysfunctional dance again and again in each new relationship.